Robert Brown, the president of Boston University for 17 years whose tenure coincided with the rise of the private school’s national reputation and increased enrollment among minority students, will step down at the end of the academic year, the school said Wednesday.
“The biggest single thing that I wanted to accomplish, which is very abstract in some ways, is to give this institution confidence,” Brown said in a phone interview with the Globe Wednesday afternoon.
“When I look at the institution I’m leaving, it’s a very confident, forward looking institution,” he said. Indeed, BU has seen its prestige rise, solidified its place among the nation’s top flight of research universities, and transformed the Boston skyline during his nearly two decade tenure.
Brown, 71, joins a growing list of college presidents who have announced their departures in the past year. At least 12 institutions in Massachusetts have, or will have, open presidencies in the coming year, including Harvard University, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
That mirrors a national exodus of college presidents, with many citing the strains of leading their institutions through the pandemic.
“I intended to stay longer,” said Brown, whose current contract runs through 2025. “It just feels right to go a little bit early.”
There are natural cycles in academia, and with the COVID-19 pandemic finally on the wane, a new chairman of the board of trustees, and the next capital campaign on the horizon, now is the ideal time for a new leader, Brown said.
After a sabbatical he will join the university’s College of Engineering to continue teaching and writing, Brown said.
A chemical engineer from San Antonio, Texas, Brown became the 10th president of the 36,000-student university in 2005 after decades teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Brown counts his greatest achievement as president to be the fourfold increase in financial aid offered by the university and the rise in minority and first generation students at BU.
Brown grew up in a working class, largely Hispanic neighborhood, and worked his way through college at the University of Texas Austin. Back then, he said, nearly everyone was a first generation college student like he was and he never felt singled out. But one of Brown’s strongest memories of his tenure is a conversation with the father of a first generation student during an event in the university’s theater.
The parent wasn’t aware BU trained students in theater, so Brown gave them a tour. The encounter helped him to realize how lost first generation students and their families could be on campus, and committed to make things better.
Brown has also overseen a major expansion of research at BU, which culminated in 2012 with BU’s admission in the American Association of Universities, an elite club of the nation’s top research universities.
For years, Azer Bestavros, who was the chair of the computer science department when Brown arrived, had been advocating for more of a focus on computing and data science, but few were listening.
Then a month into Brown’s presidency, his office called Bestavros, who is now associate provost for computing and data science, and asked for a 30 minute meeting. It ended up lasting 90 minutes.
“I just came out of this meeting very impressed with a leader who listens but also who challenges” and is willing to be challenged,” Bestavros said.
Brown realized before many other higher education leaders the importance of data and computing, Bestavros said, and the founding of the Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences as well as the Hariri Institute for Computing, put the university on the cutting edge of the field.
Even among his student critics, Brown gets high marks. He has done a lot for the campus, said Dhruv Kapadia, the president of the student body who described Brown as “very kind and genuine.”
Most of the main buildings students use, from the student services center to the theater to the life sciences building, all went up under Brown’s leadership, Kapadia said.
And students are always on the lookout for their president making his way across campus with a trademark rolling suitcase, which the president says is better for his back.
“We don’t see it very often, but when you do, it’s kind of like a sighting and people will talk about it,” Kapadia said.
More recently, Brown rose to become a leader of Massachusetts higher education during the pandemic, when he played a “pivotal” role on two inter-university committees tackling COVID, according to Rob McCarron, the president and CEO of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, a trade group.
“Bob was one of those leaders who just stepped forward,” McCarron said. “What really struck me was his ability to take a vast amount of information, some of it very technical, and … summarize it so we could share it more broadly.”
Challenges still lie ahead for BU, , Brown said. The university must continue to attract learners outside the traditional range of 17 to 22-year-olds as the number of high school graduates declines and must continue to address the affordability crisis in higher education, he said.
Kenneth Feld, the chair of the university’s board of trustees, and Ahmass Fakahany, the chair elect, called Brown’s tenure “a remarkable period full of achievements,” and said they would update the community later this week about the search for his successor in a letter published Wednesday.
Perhaps Brown’s most obvious legacy will be the 19-story Center for Computing and Data Science that resembles a stack of books that is nearing completion on Commonwealth Avenue in the heart of campus.
The uneven sections working together to create one tower represent the different disciplines and parts of campus working together as one; it also represents his vision for the university, Brown said.
“The pillar of a modern research university is for the sum of the parts to be greater than the individual pieces,” he said.
When the news of Brown’s decision spread on campus, Bestavros and his colleagues reflected on the great changes that have come to the university under Brown’s leadership.
“There’s a bit of bittersweetness,” Bestavros said. “You can look back at what he has done and it’s impressive, but we feel a bit of a loss.”